Walter (Horatio) Pater 1839-1894
English essayist, novelist, and fictional portrait writer. For further information on Pater’s career, see NCLC, Volume 7.
Considered one of the greatest English critics of the nineteenth century, Pater was a major proponent of aestheticism who helped to make Renaissance art appreciated in his era. Distinguished as the first major English writer to formulate an explicitly aesthetic philosophy of life, he promoted the “love of art for art's sake” as the richest way to experience life passionately. In his Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873) and Marius the Epicurean: His Sensations and Ideas (1885), Pater is both an original stylist and a highly perceptive critic who notes things others do not. Marius the Epicurean has been called the first anti-novel, so unlike most novels is its style and structure. Exalting beauty, art, and the artist, Pater's writings have appealed to and influenced many authors. Oscar Wilde and the young William Butler Yeats are included among his acknowledged disciples, and critics have detected Pater's influence in the work of Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Wallace Stevens, Joseph Conrad, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot. Pater is recognized as a master prose stylist and a leading exemplar of impressionist criticism.
Pater was born in Shadwell, East London, the second of four children of Richard Pater and Maria Hill. His father, a surgeon, died when Pater was two years old, and the remaining members of the family moved to Enfield, where Pater attended grammar school. He enrolled in King's School in Canterbury in 1853, the year before the death of his mother, and in 1858 won a scholarship to Queen's College at Oxford, where he studied the classics and was inspired by John Ruskin's Modern Painters. After taking a degree in humane letters in 1862 and working briefly as a tutor of private pupils, he accepted a fellowship at Brasenose College, Oxford, in 1864—a position he would keep until his death. His first published essay, a work on Samuel Taylor Coleridge, appeared in Westminster Review in 1866. Though published anonymously, “Coleridge's Writings,” with its promotion of relativism, made Pater's colleagues question his intellectual heterodoxy. Pater lived the last twenty-five years of his life with his two unmarried sisters in both Oxford and London. Much of what is known or thought to be known concerning Pater's life is gleaned from the autobiographical “The Child in the House” (which first appeared in Macmillan's in 1878, and was published as An Imaginary Portrait in 1894). Indeed, critics have noted that nearly all of Pater's work contains autobiographical elements, and that he often wrote about himself while apparently recounting another's life and career.
In 1867 Pater published, again anonymously, “Winckelmann,” a piece extolling Greek culture and art, followed by “Poems by William Morris” (1868), “Notes on Leonardo da Vinci” (1869), “A Fragment of Sandro Botticelli” (1870), and “The Poetry of Michelangelo” (1871), among others. In these essays Pater eschewed absolute critical standards in favor of his own personal impressions of the artists' works. Pater collected his various writings and included them with other pieces in Studies in the History of the Renaissance, a volume which provoked strong objections to his methods. Most notorious is the book's “Conclusion,” Pater's boldest statement of his relativist view of art and life. In the “Conclusion” Pater explained that we are here but for a brief interval; that we should strive to expand this interval; and that to do so we need to get “as many pulsations as possible into the given time.” Pater asserted that practicing the love of art for art's sake is the best means of multiplying one's consciousness. The essay created a scandal at Oxford and damaged Pater's chances for academic advancement, with critics attacking the piece as antireligious propaganda that could negatively influence impressionable young minds. Conversely, young “aesthetes” such as Oscar Wilde, Lionel Johnson, and Arthur Symons interpreted the “Conclusion” as a manifesto for artistic freedom and became the leading members of his coterie of literary disciples. Pater, the precise reasons for which scholars still argue, withdrew the “Conclusion” from the second edition, retitled The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (1877). His next major work was Marius the Epicurean, which was written with the avowed purpose of elucidating the thoughts suggested in the “Conclusion.” The ambitious novel follows the career of the fictional character Marius as he searches for a satisfactory philosophy of life in Aurelian Rome. Marius considers but eventually rejects a number of nondeist philosophies but is finally attracted to the ritual and sense of community which he discovers in the early Christian church. Imaginary Portraits (1887) is a collection of essays that had been published in Macmillan's Magazine, including “Sebastian van Storck,” “A Prince of Court Painters: Extracts from an Old French Journal,” “Denys l’Auxerrois,” and “Duke Carl of Rosenmold.” In these essays Pater imaginatively recreated the interaction of various intellectual, artistic, and moral temperaments with the cultures of selected periods of historical transition. The 1888 edition of The Renaissance contained the restored but slightly modified “Conclusion” and “The School of Giorgione,” which discusses the relationship between form and matter in art. Five chapters of the novel Gaston de Latour were published in Macmillan's in 1888 (published in book form in 1896) before Pater abandoned the work. Two additional major works were published in Pater's lifetime: Appreciations: With an Essay on Style (1889) and Plato and Platonism (1893). In Appreciations Pater used subjective impressionism to elucidate the qualities informing the genius of Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and others. The essay “Style” concerns itself with the art of writing prose and finding the perfect word to convey a particular mood and meaning. Plato and Platonism explored the genius of a culture which, in Pater's eyes, achieved a balance between the physical and the spiritual.
In general Pater's contemporaries, mollified by his apparent rapprochement with Christianity in Marius, praised him in his final years. His reputation faltered, however, after the imprisonment of Wilde in 1895 and the general dissipation of other “aesthetic” disciples of Pater. In recent decades there has been a renewed critical interest in Pater, and scholars continue to find evidence of his profound influence on the works of many twentieth-century critics, poets, and novelists. Much modern interest has also been generated by Pater's possible homosexuality. While some scholars maintain that factual evidence of Pater's personal sexual orientation is at best scant, others have forwarded homoerotic and psychosexual readings of his work. A great deal of attention focuses on Marius the Epicurean, portions of which are generally considered autobiographical, and its attempt to, in Richard Dellamora's words, “reconsider Christianity so as to include homosexuality within it.” The exact nature of Marius's interest in Christianity and the circumstances surrounding his death have provoked debate, as has the matter of how much of himself Pater wrote into Marius; Pater characteristically remained silent on the subject of his own personal faith. Pater's reputation now appears firmly established. J. Hillis Miller, writing in 1976, called Pater one of the greatest English literary critics of the nineteenth century and a “precursor of what is most vital in contemporary criticism.” William E. Buckler asserts that Pater “is still one of a half-dozen indispensable critics in English; from, say, 1880 to 1920, he was without equal.”